Thursday, August 30, 2018

A little higher and a little lower: The Treble and Bass Stylophones

The modern Stylophone S1 instruments have been made available in several different color schemes, but they all have the same features and sounds. That wasn't the case with some earlier Stylophone models in alternative color schemes. While the commonly available black-and-white Stylophone from the 1960s was the standard model, instruments with white and beige-and-white cabinets were also sold.

The white "treble" model substitutes a few electronic component values in the circuit, so that the instrument's pitch range is an octave higher. The beige-and-white "bass" model has pitch range an octave lower than the standard instrument.

If you would like to add these two rarities to your own Stylophone collection, try the UK version of eBay. It is not unusual to see treble Stylophones listed there, priced around the equivalent of  $15 to $30 USD. I've seen several treble Stylophones listed on the US version of eBay as well.

The bass model seems to be quite rare, so it may take some patience and luck to find one. I had an automatic search set up on eBay for a couple of years before I was able to buy one from a seller in France. As I recall, the purchase price was around $15 USD, but the shipping cost was around $30. When the instrument arrived, I fired it up and it worked for only about 30-seconds. I took it to a local amplifier and keyboard repair shop, along with a copy of the circuit schematic I found online. They were able to replace a few failed components on the circuit board and have it sounding almost good-as-new. The repair job cost me around $70, but should have cost more. The technician gave me a discount because he found the project amusing. So, my $15 bass Stylophone was not such a bargain after all.

I find the treble version of the Stylophone to work and sound as expected. The bass model doesn't seem to be quite in-tune in the lower few notes. I don't know if this is due to the original design, the age of the instrument, or the repair job.

The bass and treble Stylophones are certainly not essential for any musical application. A standard model can be pitched up or down with a computer DAW or an effects pedal for very similar results, but I find it fun to have these peculiar variants in my already peculiar collection of vintage Stylophones.

Monday, May 28, 2018

New box and booklet design commemorate the Stylophone's golden anniversary

Wow! It has been 50 years since dubreq launched the original Stylophone. 
Millions have been sold around the world since then. To commemorate this milestone, dubreq redesigned the box and booklet for their latest batch of Stylophone S1 instruments, available now. They were kind enough to send me a sample.

The instrument, itself, doesn't have any new features. But the box has fun, new artwork.

The usual S1 with an audio cable is inside, plus a redesigned instruction booklet.

 The booklet features a brief overview of the Stylophone's 50-year history, including photos of inventor Brian Jarvis, factory workers assembling instruments, the famous David Bowie endorsement advertisement and the familiar publicity photo for Kraftwerk's Computer World album with a mannequin pretending to be a robot pretending to be Karl Bartos playing a Stylophone. (Can mannequin's pretend?)

There's also the usual instructions, but with a colorful design to match the box artwork.

And, of course, there are melody charts for three songs to get you started.

It's a fun makeover that retains much of the nerd appeal of previous versions. The S1 with it's new packaging would make a delightful gift for someone you'd like to introduce to the Stylophone phenomenon. 

By the way, a lot of articles on the web say the Stylophone was invented in 1967. That's probably true. The new booklet says manufacturing of the Stylophone began in North London in 1968. So, that makes 2018 the golden anniversary of the Stylophone as a commercial product. Happy anniversary!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Delightful (and peculiar) Stylophone 350S

I took a rather long break from posting to the Stylophone Museum. I've been in the process of selling one home and moving to another. A lot of my musical instruments got put away in cardboard boxes. Now I'm back with possibly my favorite Stylophone, the somewhat rare model 350S.

Dubreq released this instrument around 1977 and it seems their intention was to promote the 350S as a more legitimate musical instrument that could be used in a band. Some other websites and blogs claim that only a few thousand of these instruments were ever sold. (By the way, I try my best to share mostly my own opinion and direct knowledge about Stylophones, rather than just repeating information from other websites. There are lots of great resources about Stylophones on the web. You should check them out for yourself.)

The first thing you will notice about the 350S is its size. With dimensions of about 12.5"x3.5"x11.5" it dwarfs every other previous Stylophone. It's that big for a few reasons. It features 44 keys. That's almost 4 octaves or half the range of a piano. It also has two styli (more on that later.) And it sports a bigger internal speaker than the standard models. I really like the wider range of notes.  It comes in handy when playing melodies that span several octaves.

The 350S has a fairly wide range of possible timbres, too. A set of six 3-way toggle switches allow you to dial up 80 possible timbres using an additive synthesis scheme somewhat similar to a Hammond tonewheel organ. You can choose various combinations of woodwind, brass and string sounds at 16', 8', 4' or 2'. (This numbering system corresponds with the pipe lengths of a pipe organ. 8' is kind of the fundamental tone. 16' is a subharmonic an octave lower. 4' and 2' are harmonics one and two octaves higher.) Playing multiple harmonics at the same time produce a richer, more complex timbre. The woodwind sound is available in all four lengths. The brass is available in 16' and 8'. The strings sound is available at 4' and 2'. You can select 1 to 4 of these voices that play solo or in unison as one registration. Unlike a Hammond, though, you can't adjust the volume balance between the different harmonics. Warning! If all four toggle switches are in the center position, you get no sound.  I've panicked more than once when the switches were set this way and I couldn't coax out a sound.

The designations of "woodwind," "brass" and "strings" are very approximate, much like the registration names of different pipe organ sounds. I haven't hooked my 350S to an oscilloscope to see exactly what the waveforms are, but generally a square wave would be considered a woodwind sound, a sawtooth wave would be a brass sound, and a triangle wave would be a string sound. So I think that is what is going on here.

I sometimes joke that the 350S has 80 possible sounds that all sound alike.  That's not quite true, but the differences between sound combinations are fairly subtle. Fortunately, you can further manipulate those 80 sounds with 0 to 80 combinations of effects settings for a total of  6,480 possible patches (80 timbres x 80 effects + 80 timbres with no effects.)

Effects include fast and slow vibrato, fast and slow reiteration, long and short decay, and the option to use a photo control device to manipulate overall volume, vibrato volume, or a "waa waa" filter by moving your left hand above the instrument, allowing more or less light to hit the sensor. If you're playing in a room with either low light or on stage with disco balls and sweeping spotlights, the photo control isn't very practical. So, you can plug in an expression pedal and operate the same controls with your foot. To get the full range with a foot pedal, though, it is best to cover the photo sensor with something opaque, because the expression pedal adds to the photo sensor value, rather than completely replacing its function.

The vibrato effect probably needs no explanation, so I will skip it. The decay effect approximates the volume envelope of a struck or plucked instrument. A played note will fade to silence even if you are still holding the stylus against the keyboard.

The reiteration effect takes some explaining. Reiteration is a percussion effect that appeared on some electric organs in the 1960s and 70s. It also appeared in the settings of some theater pipe organs that could play actual percussion instruments in addition to the pipes. Basically, when you held down a key or keys, the organ would rapidly turn the sound on and off as if you were rapidly playing the same key(s) over and over again. (In theater organs, it would make the mallets actually strike the percussion instruments over and over again.) In electric organs, it's an effect used to imitate instruments like banjo strums and xylophones. Pete Townshend used a very similar effect on a Lowrey organ for The Who's hit song "Baba O'Riley." The Stylophone 350S employees reiteration with the left-most stylus. While in reiteration mode, you can hold the left stylus on any key to get that effect. If you continue to use the right-most stylus to play a melody, the reiteration sound will mute as long as both styli are in contact with the keyboard, and you will only hear the normal sound of the right stylus. By rapidly alternating between styli, it almost sounds as if you can play a lead line and a backing strumming sound at the same time.

On the side panel where you can plug in an expression pedal, there are also audio input and output jacks. The input jack allows another electric instrument's audio signal to be mixed with the 350S audio output. The output jack allows you to turn off the internal speaker and send to sound output to an external amplifier or recording device. There's also a tuning wheel so that you can fine-tune the 350s and match other instruments in a band.

Finally, I want to tell you about the batteries. The Stylophone 350S is designed to be powered by two PP9 batteries, which are huge 9-volt batteries that are rarely available anymore in the United States.

 Since these batteries are hard to find and rather expensive, I power my instrument with PP3 batteries, which are the more familiar, small 9-volt batteries that you used to get for free with your battery club card at Radio Shack. The space between the terminals is different between PP3 and PP9 batteries, so I had to rig and adapter for each of them. I bought some battery terminal plugs of each kind, and connected them together. With my first attempt, I got the polarity wrong and within a few seconds the batteries got very hot. Fortunately, I didn't fry the instrument. After swapping the wires, the instrument powered right up and worked just fine.

The next problem with substituting batteries is that the two battery compartments on the underside of the instrument were designed to accommodate those gigantic PP9 batteries. My little PP3 batteries would flop around loose inside the instrument and possibly do damage to the circuit board. I tried to hold the batteries in place with ordinary cellophane tape.  That worked for awhile, but the tape broke easily. For a long time, I just allowed the batteries to be loose inside there and hoped nothing bad would happen. Today, I got an idea that seems to work. I placed the two batteries inside a plastic food container that was about the right size to fit in one of the battery compartments. The batteries are trapped inside the container and the container is trapped inside the battery compartment. I'll go with this scheme until I can think of something better.

I picked up my 350S, used, from an eBay seller in the UK a few years ago.  I can't recall the exact cost, but I think it was somewhere around $150 including shipping. The box was in bad shape and the 350S had some minor cosmetic issues, but sounded great. I've seen eBay listings for allegedly NOS (new old stock) for about $220 and up. One problem with buying these instruments sight-unseen is that the seller often does not have the PP9 batteries and cannot test their 350S to verify that it still works.

If you want to hear the 350S in its full glory, check out the really cool Russian rock band called Gromyka. They used the 350S as their primary keyboard instrument.

If you are a Stylophone fan and you can get one, I highly recommend this instrument. I really enjoy playing the 350S. It has many of the quirky charms of the original Stylophone, but it is a richer-sounding instrument that is a giant leap closer to the sound and functionality of an electric organ. Keep in mind, though, that any electronic device this old can fail at any moment. Repairing one can be either costly or impossible. Every time I play my 350S, I think about this and appreciate it even more.